Blockchain explained

Revolutionizing the waste supply chain: Blockchain for social good

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plastic bottle beachBlockchain applications for social good are becoming increasingly critical and will revolutionize the world with their impact. With increased adoption and repeatable use cases, we are primed to face global challenges with a digital network of transparency, tamper-resistance and trust. Blockchain for good is transforming how we tackle global challenges like poverty, hunger, education, and access to clean and safe water.

From Plastic Bank turning plastic waste into a valuable currency to Twiga Foods increasing accessibility to microfinancing for small farmers, IBM is working to apply blockchain to achieve some of the United Nation’s most critical Sustainable Development Goals. With the increasing burden of waste and recycling becoming a huge environmental problem, the waste management industry is well positioned for blockchain transformation.

Blockchain can’t reduce the sheer quantity of waste Americans create every day, but a system that uses radio frequency identification and QR codes on the trash bags or pieces of recycling sent to landfills could help ease and make the process much more transparent. The technology could be leveraged to connect recycling companies with other processing alternatives rather than landfills and could create the necessary transparency and accountability that Americans want from waste management.

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Where is your recycling really going?

Waste management is in critical shape, especially in the United States, where Americans contribute 728,000 tons of garbage to landfills every day. Prior to 2018, China processed at least half the world’s exports of plastic, paper, and metals, but has recently made their regulations stricter, cutting out 24 categories of solid waste like scrap plastic and mixed paper. The bans include a reduced tolerance for contaminated materials, a strict standard which many Americans are unable to meet. Because of bans, recyclable materials are overwhelming American recycling companies which are being forced to send what they can’t handle, back to landfills.

The frustration over this is leading to what is being called “aspirational recycling” — the diligent sorting of materials for recycling due to the belief they’re being reused, even when they are still ending up in the landfill. You may see this, or experience this yourself as the dutiful office environmentalist recycling your coffee cups, or as a student throwing your pizza boxes in the blue bin at the dorm. The fear that you aren’t making a difference is shared by many others, and a legitimate danger that a growing collective fear could lead the public to stop recycling altogether — meaning it would be harder to get you and others to start again in the future once problems are resolved.

Blockchain applications could be the fix, connecting recycling companies with other processing alternatives than landfills. When one company has a burden of recyclable materials in stockpile, they could reach out to the blockchain’s network to locate another member who could process the remaining materials rather than diverting to a landfill. By creating a more efficient means of communication, blockchain could connect recycling companies to balance the burden of materials.

Accountability in waste management

There is now a sense that the current waste management system — by consumers and companies — lacks a sense of accountability leading to frustration with recycling efforts. No digital transaction system currently exists to hold companies or individuals accountable for the waste they’ve created and lost recycling. By placing producers, consumers, and waste management operators into a network together, blockchain could create a view of the waste supply chain that is accessible and visible. Blockchain adds value to both the consumer and the company by demonstrating individual impact to every member of the network.

Despite traditional beliefs that the responsibility to decrease landfill materials should be placed on the producer of the consumer-packaged goods, blockchain would create a level of responsibility across every member of the recycling lifecycle. Blockchain, with its decentralized and tamper-proof nature, is an optimal tracking system for a product’s lifecycle, as already demonstrated in a number of industries. If it could extend through the recycling process, we could increase accountability at every step rather than just placing the burden on the producer.

Using a consortium blockchain would create a platform for waste management and recycling organizations to share their data openly while having a tamper-proof ledger of where the waste actually went and what amount was recycled. This indisputable record would place accountability on every member of the chain rather than just on the producer as traditionally done, yielding a more effective recycling process.

The importance of tracking e-waste

Much of the technology you use every day, like your smartphone, contains minerals like lithium and cobalt that need to be disposed of responsibly; however, consumers either sell their old smartphones to someone else or they end up in a landfill. These old products are surprisingly valuable — with the right network of parties, consumers can find useful ways to recycle their e-waste.

For example, smartphones that contain rare minerals like cobalt could be reused to make new products, rather than mining more or sourcing it from areas where there is environmental or social risk. An overarching issue for e-waste is that consumers simply don’t know if, or where their technology can be recycled. As a result, only 20 percent of generated e-waste is recorded as collected or recycled. With a blockchain network, producers could more easily respond to offers from consumers looking to recycle their products, accessing minerals more efficiently than gathering them from their original source.

Early blockchain adopters for a clean future

With all these challenges, there are organizations currently involved in tackling the waste epidemic with blockchain solutions and are laying the groundwork for scaleable blockchain applications to reduce the waste burden globally. They are aiming at using blockchain to incentivize better recycling and waste sorting.

Agora Tech Lab leverages policy ideas with blockchain technology, working with the Rotterdam principality in the Netherlands to register waste management-related transactions and integrate IoT waste systems to create a fully monitored and blockchain-based waste management system. Their digital tokens reward recycling and can be redeemed for public services to improve both recycling rates and community ties. Swachhcoin combines blockchain technology with big data and IoT devices to reward waste sorting — they act as a technological developer to make the waste management system as efficient and capable as possible to tackle the waste crisis.

Other organizations create solutions that increase visibility and transparency about the lifecycle of waste from producer to landfill. Arep, a subsidiary of SCNF in France, has used blockchain to track each station bin, continuously updating on the amount of each type of waste, who collected it, and how it moves around. This enables station managers to optimize sorting for different waste streams. The Dutch Ministry for Infrastructure is a role model for other government agencies looking to improve their waste management processes. The agency uses blockchain to improve transparency about waste in transit for the waste management industry — developing a custom solution to track waste from producer to landfill.

Blockchain simplifies supply chain and creates a more efficient, transparent, and trustworthy system for a plethora of transaction types. With the application of this validation and tracking technology to waste management, we could see a system with more accountability on the consumer, company, and the waste management industry as a whole. With this system in place, the coffee cup or pizza box you throw in the recycling bin could really make the world cleaner and more sustainable.

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IBM Blockchain Intern - College of William and Mary

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